Music Interviews
10:51 pm
Fri July 25, 2014

Gurrumul, An Unlikely International Star, Reaches U.S. Ears

Originally published on Fri July 25, 2014 6:40 pm

The Australian musician and singer-songwriter Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, who goes by simply Gurrumul, is an international star. He has sung a duet with Sting, performed for Britain's Royal Family and President Obama and even graced the cover of Rolling Stone, who called him "Australia's most important voice." That's remarkable for a man who was born blind, is extremely shy and doesn't speak much English.

Gurrumul's songs, like his own life, encompass a span of human experience as great as any on earth. His native language is unintelligible to all but a few thousand people in northern Australia; a generation ago his people roamed the bush. On the other hand, he has been to New York, to Paris and to London. And while his lyrics invoke the myths of his people, thoroughly unfamiliar stuff to Western ears, the music is essentially acoustic folk, inspired by tunes from the U.S. and Britain.

Gurrumul's self-titled debut album, which originally saw release in Australia in 2008, hit shelves in the U.S. this week. This singer does not give interviews, but his bass player and producer Michael Hohnen spoke with NPR's Robert Siegel about how the Australian star's songs encompass a span of human experience as great as any on Earth. Hear their conversation at the audio link.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The Australian musician and singer-songwriter named Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu is an international star - he goes by Gurrumul. Gurrumul has sung a duet with Sting, he's performed for Britain's royal family and for President Obama, he's been on the cover of Rolling Stone. That's remarkable for a man who was born blind who's extremely shy and doesn't speak much English. Gurrumul songs, like his own life, encompass a span of human expense as great as any on earth. His native language is unintelligible to all but a few thousand people in northern Australia. A generation ago, his people roamed the Bush. On the other hand, he has been to New York, to Paris, to London. And while his lyrics invoked the myths of his people, thoroughly unfamiliar, exotic stuff to Western ears, the music is anything but exotic.

(SOUNDBITE OF GURRUMUL SONG, "WIYATHUL")

SIEGEL: It's folk music inspired by tunes of the U.S. and Britain.

(SOUNDBITE OF GURRUMUL SONG, "WIYATHUL")

SIEGEL: Gurrumul doesn't give interviews but his friend Michael Hohnen, a musician and producer, joins us from Darwin, in Australia, to talk about Gurrumul . And the self-titled album "Gurrumul" that's now in the U.S. it came out of Australia back in 2009, but first, Michael Hohnen, welcome to the program.

MICHAEL HOHNEN: It's lovely to be with you, Robert.

SIEGEL: And I want you to tell us a little bit about this song we're hearing "Wiyathul" which is the first track on the album. I gather it's about orange footed scrubfouls.

HOHNEN: It is but the Yolngu people always sing about multidimensional things. So whilst this is about the scrubfoul, which is a strange bird that lives in the top end of Australia, Gurrumul is talking about being that bird. He is that bird and his clan is that bird and they sing sentiments about connection and being at one. With all elements of the surroundings.

(SOUNDBITE OF GURRUMUL SONG, "WIYATHUL")

SIEGEL: How old, by the way, is Gurrumul now?

HOHNEN: He's 43.

SIEGEL: I gather still lives at home with his parents and many siblings?

HOHNEN: He lives on an island, yep. In Elcho Island northeast Arnhem Land in a house of 15 or 20 other people as do a lot of indigenous people across the top end of Australia.

SIEGEL: When you say house - a large house?

HOHNEN: No, just a regular house 40 or 50 years ago on the island a community was brought together partly by the church and partly by the government. Because before then, his family were basically living in the Bush. And the people of Arnhem Land are in some ways an compromise situation because of them having to fit into a system which is forced upon them, but also at the same time Gurrumul lives with such a strong identity it's almost like that, despite how they live, they celebrate culture and song and dance and everything else as if nothing's changed.

SIEGEL: Then there's one song on the album. "Gurrumul History (I was born blind)" where we hear him singing in English.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GURRUMUL HISTORY I WAS BORN BLIND")

GURRUMUL: (Singing) I was born blind, and I don't know why. God knows why, because he loves me so.

HOHNEN: It's rare he sings the chorus in language basically talking about his identity and lots of elements of that identity and his ancestors. But he also talks about traveling, you know, to New York to LA and to London and his parents crying. He member hearing them, when he was a little boy, crying trying to work out how they would bring him up through culture and through society.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GURRUMUL HISTORY I WAS BORN BLIND")

GURRUMUL: I heard my Mama and my Papa, crying their heart in confusion.

HOHNEN: It's a very moving song when you hear him sing it live. Gurrumul is blind but he doesn't wear any glasses so it's very obvious that he is, you know, you stare straight into his eyes without pupils and it's quite in-your-face if you like this song, it's quite confronting and it's often something that will push people over the edge to cry. In a good way, if you know what I mean.

SIEGEL: Michael, take me back. Tell us a little bit about your first encounter with Gurrulmul whom I've seen described not only as your close friend, you not only produce the music and play double bass, I've even seen you described him as an adoptive brother. How did you meet this fellow?

HOHNEN: I was working for the University up here and running a music course and so I ended up on his island. A lot of music comes out of that place. And the fellow who was really keen to get a band going needed, you know, some other people in the band so he went and grabbed Gurrumul who'd been traveling around the world with a big band from Australia up to seven years before that. So he knew a lot about music. That night, he appeared in the doorway and like I said before it's quite confronting when you first meet Gurrumul 'cause he relies on people to lead him and guard him and finds that the most reliable way because he's constantly asking you what's this like, what's that like. Anyway, I met him and he's physical with you and he sat down and started playing and singing and we were immediately struck and recognized how special he was. He and I developed a friendship from there and I helped his band record a few albums. He's intuitive, he's funny, he's very shy and very reclusive in some ways and I think part of that is a big safety mechanism for him and a survival technique but he's incredibly talented and sometimes you can name drop and say when we were in Paris playing with Sting you could feel this musicianship coming to the fore in the more time you spend with him the more that musicianship comes out. And when you get the sort of affirmation from the top, you know, that you're thinking the right way and not just biased because it's a musician that you work with.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED GURRUMUL SONG)

GURRUMUL: (Singing in foreign language).

SIEGEL: Thank you very much for talking with us about your friend and for describing and explaining some of his music for us.

HOHNEN: It's been my pleasure to be on such a great show that we get here in Australia too.

SIEGEL: That's Bass player and producer Michael Hohnen talking about the singer-songwriter Gurrumul whose album "Gurrumul" is now released in the United States. This song, by the way, is about the rainbow python who Gurrumul's people believe created the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED GURRUMUL SONG)

GURRUMUL: (Singing in foreign language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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